Photo by Brian J. Lilienthal

I must confess, I thought I was in for a bad night. In the
small, stark confines of Theatre/Theater, the proceedings begin offhandedly, almost
haphazardly, with no sprightly pre-show announcements urging us to enjoy the evening
or to turn off cell phones. The lights dim, but not significantly. Music heavy
on the violins swells and crashes like ocean waves in a storm, and a disembodied
narrator's voice begins telling the story in the deadest of deadpans, though it's
not really a story, but a series of charged observations delivered in cool, declamatory
sentences in Dragnet-like fashion. Actors dressed in black walk onstage
with lots of attitude but little fanfare, save a striking blond (Amanda Decker)
who pauses, grimaces to an alarming degree, doubles over with some unspeakable
pain, and then straightens up and takes her place in the tableau as if nothing
has happened. What has happened, or not, is unclear: The ambiguity is every inch
Marguerite Duras, the post-postmodern French auteur best known for her screenplay
Hiroshima Mon Amour and whose 1969 play/novella, Destroy,
She Said, is enjoying its debut American – run in Hollywood,
no less. Fine, but I'm already fearing the unbearable heaviness of the whole Euro-postmodern
enterprise: the symbolism, the double- and triple-entendres, the minimalism that
winds up suffocating from its own lack of dramatic oxygen. In these politically
strangled times, I want to breathe big, and I hardly expect to do it tonight.
I settle back in my seat and decide to make the most of it.

But I don't have to. Something wonderful happens: This show expands. Over the
course of the next 90 minutes, it gives air instead of sucking it out of the room.
A quartet of actors steadily enlivens the most static of premises – two men and
two women in various states of discontent and/or self-deceit waiting on some kind
of deliverance, or apocalypse (in a word, love), in a luxe hotel/spa at the edge
of a nameless forest. The ensemble pulls most of the headiness down to earth with
a sincerity and hopefulness that is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but never
sentimental – this is postmodernism, after all. The backdrop is plastic sheeting
in a harsh blue, the props cold white tables and chairs; director Matthew Wilder
keeps the interaction among performers pointed and economical.

But this Destroy, She Said is also human, a quality that feels in this context distinctly American. A collective energy forms among the lost souls to create a mood of expectancy that might waver, but never breaks. Amanda Decker's portrayal of the blond, Elizabeth Alione, is reserved but vulnerable, less Catherine Deneuve and more latter-day Tippi Hedren; when she confesses to a pregnancy gone awry and subsequent recuperation at the hotel, it's a real tragedy, not simply a metaphor. Walter Murray has the juiciest role, as Stein, the almost friendly Svengali of the group; in a delicious irony-within-an-irony, Murray, a black actor who co-founded the San Diego Black Ensemble Theater, portrays a Jew and the most enigmatic figure in the show. Murray plays it straight, embellishing nothing, but his Stein cannot help but be savvy and appealing in ways that Duras never imagined.

Wilder, 37, had to imagine Duras for a good year and a half before he could mount
Destroy, She Said in the States. After securing a grant from
the French Ministry of Culture, the director initially planned to stage the show
in Dallas. “I think the French liked that idea – putting on this very French,
high-art kind of show in the middle of Texas to really stick it to W,” says Wilder
with a laugh. But there were problems with space and timing, and the show eventually
relocated to L.A. Things moved swiftly thereafter: Destroy was translated
from the French in a matter of weeks by Jim Carmody, director of UC San Diego's
doctorate program in theater and a friend of Wilder's.

The show itself rehearsed a standard three weeks, but given the newness of the
material, that was not a lot of time. But Wilder, a veteran director in the L.A.
theater scene, was confident he had something worth seeing – a piece that challenged
and provoked, but not as screed or agitprop. Transposing a foreign period piece
from the late '60s, written with an aesthetic that was waning even then, was just
what Wilder was looking for. “I've been involved in lots of shows that are in
your face, that grab you by the lapels and shake you, clang the alarm bells,”
says Wilder, citing a recent project, Songs of Joy and
Destitution, a piece about the Iraq war. “I wanted to do something
every bit as subversive, but different. I wanted something to punch me in the
nose, but to whisper. Something with no blood that was very polite and that had
something very violent and obscene going on underneath.” In Wilder's view, such
a work is timeless. “I know there's a danger in doing something that shouts, ‘This
is a work of art,' he adds. “But I wanted to do something that goes against the
grain, particularly in L.A. Not just entertainment or contemplation, but something

DESTROY, SHE SAID | By MARGUERITE DURAS | At THEATRE/THEATER, Fourth Floor, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | Through February 13 | (310) 382-0710

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